Avoiding the Dark Side: Improving Performance by Training the Mind
© 2004 by Joe Friel and Chuck Graziano
On a Saturday afternoon in late Fall, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were down to their
last play of the game against Navy, who had hopes of defeating the Irish for the first time
in 39 years. The score is tied at 24-24; it’s fourth down with five seconds left on the
clock. Notre Dame’s field goal kicker, Nicolas Setta - one of the best in college football,
is out with an injury and his replacement, D.J. Fitzpatrick, is about to attempt the longest
field goal of his career to win the game for the Irish.
Warmed up and ready to go, he comes onto the field only to have a time out called by
Navy. Then another time out and again. Navy used its third and last time out to let
Fitzpatrick think a bit longer, as if the pressure of the moment wasn’t high enough.
Finally, the ball is snapped, held in place and kicked through the goal posts to achieve
the win for the Fighting Irish.
When interviewed after the game Fitzpatrick said that his coach “freezes” him in practice
regularly. He knew that all he had to do was to go out and get the job done just as he
had rehearsed many times before!
Fitzpatrick’s field goal points to the importance of the mental game in sports. Learning
how to train and compete mentally as well as physically can make the difference in any
sport. As multisport athletes we confront an infinite number of issues that could pose as
barriers. They range from the guilt of not being able to train enough due to other
commitments to panicking on the race course due to a flat tire or other disruption in our
Practicing mentally can be enormously effective when coupled with good physical
training. Studies have shown that creating a mental vision of yourself competing can
have a direct result on your performance.
According to the experts, some people naturally visualize themselves from the inside,
seeing an image as if they were racing. Some see themselves as others would, as if
they were watching a videotape of themselves. Irrespective of which type of vision you
normally create, practicing in your mind, or visualizing successful performance can have
a positive impact on results.
See yourself smoothly coming out of the water ahead of the pack, wetsuit easily sliding
off, changing for the bike flawlessly and riding away spinning smoothly. Create the vision
of yourself running powerfully.
Another tool for your mental preparation is to watch videos of others. Watching a visual
image of someone performing a task in perfect form, such as a swimmer filmed from
underwater, will create a stored image that can be recalled to improve performance.
Vivid mental imagery not only creates a “feel good” response in the moment, but also
creates neural tracks in the central nervous system that are later recalled and
transmitted to the muscles to instruct when and how to respond.
The Pressure of Competition
Just about all of us get “butterflies” before competition. Breathing becomes shallow and
quickened. The heart rate increases and nerves become jittery. These reactions have a
more profound effect on some than on others. A few deep breaths will increase the
oxygen flow through the body that will calm and relax you. Move around or jog for a bit.
Review your “anchors” (see sidebar). And continue breathing!
Most athletes also get intimidated around competition that they perceive as being in a
different “class.” Consider that being around more experienced athletes allows you to
learn far more and to perform at an even higher level than you otherwise would. You’ve
done the training; you’re ready to race, now go out and have the race you prepared for.
Things That Go Bump in the Night
Unfortunately, in the real world of racing things can go wrong. Do all you can to put
together the perfect race plan, but be mentally prepared for the worst. Here’s what to do:
• The Disrupted Game Plan. The longer the race, the more likely it is that your game
plan will be disrupted. In all sports, athletes deal with a myriad of variables from
equipment problems to personal, physical and psychological issues to external or
environmental conditions. Take them in stride. Make adjustments to your game plan and
keep moving toward the finish line on your modified track. You can plan ahead for the
most likely disruptions.
Issues such as a flat tire can likely create an anxious feeling that has the potential of
ruining your day. It’s not the flat tire; it’s the way you react to it that matters. If a
breakdown occurs, take a few deep breaths and a moment to quiet the nerves. Move
quickly and deliberately to repair the breakdown and continue to monitor your breathing.
Deep breaths create a calming effect! Consider how you will deal with such a
“catastrophe” and rehearse it in training.
• Pain and Fatigue. During the event is no time to consider whether or not you’ve trained
sufficiently. Focus on the task at hand. Everyone feels the effects of fatigue during a
race, but champions will focus on fluid movement. Break the race down into chunks.
Someone once said to remember how you would eat an elephant - one bite at a time.
Now focus on your next milestone, such as the next water station, and direct your
energies to getting there.
• External Factors. Some issues are not in your control such as race course conditions,
weather, water temperature, and so forth. Everyone, however, is competing under the
same conditions. These varying circumstances are part of what make multisport so
interesting. Make them a part of the race challenge and not a problem that defeats you.
Champions always view the road ahead as an opportunity or challenge and not as full of
problems. It may be an old corny expression, but you have the choice of looking at a
glass as half full or half empty. Irrespective of your tendency in the past, developing a
training program for your mind as well as your body will help you see the “half full” glass
and result in a higher level of performance.
Joe Friel is the author of The Triathlete’s Training Bible. Chuck Graziano is an Ultrafit
Associate and coaches multisports and alpine skiing. For more information about this
article, contact Chuck at Chuckg@ultrafit.com.
Ten Key Elements to Avoiding the Dark Side
1. Write down and speak your goals to make them more real and to align your
family and friends.
2. Develop “muscle memory” by watching videos of yourself or others.
3. Develop a Mantra that renews your commitment.
4. Visualize your success movement continuously.
5. Control the controllable (equipment, proper rest, nutrition) and forget what’s not
(weather, course conditions).
6. Develop a race strategy that includes pacing, nutrition and hydration and review
7. Know the course. “Fear of the unknown” is something that can be avoided.
8. Get your rest. Spend some time at the expo, and then get off of your feet.
9. Take deep breaths to calm your nerves. Use other techniques that work for you.
10. Race in the present. What’s happened in the past no longer matters. Focus on
the task at hand and stick to your game plan.
Two Mental Maneuvers for Race Day
On Race Day you may find that your confidence wanes when you arrive at the check-in.
Here are two mental skills you can use to get your mind back where it should be.
Practice these regularly.
Maneuver #1: Act “as if.” When you arrive at the race venue walk and stand proudly with
your head up, back straight, chest out. Look people in the eye. In other words, act as if
you’re confident even if you don’t feel that way. It’s amazing how the body’s posture
influences the mind positively — or negatively. Once you begin acting as a confident
person does you’ll begin to feel confident.
Maneuver #2: Use an “anchor.” At the first sign of a non-confident thought (for example,
“These people in my age group look more fit than me!”) immediately recall a significant
success you have had recently in training or another race. Then “replay” the tape of that
success in your mind over and over until the non-confident thought is gone. Develop a
ready “menu” of these anchors by reviewing what went well in each day’s training at
night as you lie in bed before falling asleep.
Books to Develop Mental Skills
Now is the time to do some reading to prepare your mind for the long race season
ahead. Here are some books that may prove helpful in improving your mental skills.
• Coaching Mental Excellence: It Does Matter Whether You Win or Lose by Ralph
• In Pursuit of Excellence: How to Win in Sport and Life Through Mental Training by
• Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
• Flow in Sports by Susan Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
• Mental Training for Peak Performance: Top Athletes Reveal the Mind Exercises They
Use to Excel by Steven Ungerleider
• Mind Gym : An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack
• Running Within by Jerry Lynch and Warren Scott
• The New Toughness Training for Sports by James E. Loehr
• What Makes Winners Win by Charlie Jones